Two Part Harmony
Hindu Indians who don’t eat beef and Muslim Pakistanis who don’t drink wine gather for congenial evenings of song, serving one another wine and beef to signal mutual respect
Every Saturday evening in a small house in Queens, people from countries in conflict stop arguing about their differences. Instead, they sit side by side and listen to music, in an effort to create harmony.
The host, Schery Pallakil, is a 48-year-old Indian-American stockbroker who has been organizing such gatherings for 25 years, calls this the Shrine of Love. It began as a friendly weekly meeting among local Indians, then expanded to encompass people from other mainly South Asian countries who wanted to experience friendship and peace through conversation and music.
At a recent gathering, Pallakil greeted his guests at the door with a big smile, then led them to the basement, where they removed their shoes before entering. The room has no chairs; guests sit on the floor.
“It is a club that anybody can join,” Pallakil said. “People who believe in overcoming racial and religious hatred through the message of music and love are all welcome. It is true that most people here are Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans, but the shrine is open for all.”
“We talk about politics and religion here, and we agree all the time,” said Baber Majid, 35, a native of Pakistan and a reporter for the New York Times. “How is that possible, you might ask? Well, when we reach a point of disagreement, we simply stop the discussion and wait ‘til later to continue. There is never tension between us.”
Present were Hindu Indians who don’t eat beef and Muslim Pakistanis and Afghans who don’t drink wine. Yet they all serve wine and beef to one another, as a sign of respect and acceptance.
Sartaj Khan, 59, a Pakistani security advisor and ice cream shop owner, poured wine for other guests, although he is a committed Muslim with a prostration mark on his forehead, a dark spot that shows that he has been praying for a long time.
“When we sit in this room we forget about everything,” Khan said. “We are simply humans and friends gathered by music.”
When it was nearly midnight, Pallakil started to play the drums, accompanied by two Pakistani musicians. It was the sort of music you’d hear in a Bollywood movie. The room filled with songs about love, and longing for homeland.
“I truly liked “Slumdog Millionaire” and was happy it received Oscars,” Pallakil said, of the dark horse hit movie whose hero was a poor Indian Muslim teenager. “We need movies like this that show the lives of poor people in Indian slums. This is what should come out, and that is the only way they could expose the poverty and exploitation of poor people in India and other countries.”
Pallakil and some of his friends are talking about turning the Shrine of Love into a serious social enterprise, to help immigrants from other countries in conflict meet in friendship.
“With all the diversity here in New York, we think our message can be heard, and we can actually get people together away from ethnic and religious tensions,” Pallakil said.
Though most people at the Shrine of Love hail from South Asia, Pallakil and his friends say they welcome anyone open to their message of peace.
“The door is open — you don’t even need to ring the bell. If you want to join us, just come and get downstairs and enjoy your evening,” Khan said, as he poured a glass of red wine for a man sitting next to him.
Later, two Pashtun musicians who fled their home in Pakistan after, they said, Taliban officials ordered them to sing religious chants, took over the musical scene. Singer Haroon Bacha, 36, a star back home, and his sometime collaborator, composer Sahib Gul, 41, left their families behind in Pakistan, and have applied for asylum in the United States.
“We come here every week to meet friends and sing,” Gul said. “We get refreshed, and forget our worries in this environment. We feel there is only the bond of music between us — nothing else matters.”
As the band sang emotional songs celebrating love, and the peacefulness of the Pakistani people, Pallikil led his 16-year-old daugher Periyanka into the room. She sat next to the door and greeted the assembly with a shy smile.
“I feel happy when I see the house full of people from all religions,” Periyanka said. “We have no choice — we were born in a certain religion and we have to accept each other. That is my way of thinking.”
The singing and music continued late into the night. Those who stayed to the end were invited to sleep over.
After the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, 20 Pakistani families held a vigil in the heavily South Asian Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, in solidarity with the victims, Majid said.
“I believe the Shrine of Love will spread its message of tolerance and friendship, and will get bigger day by day,” he said.
Indian-American stockbroker Schery Pallakil (left), organizes friendship gatherings among neighbors from South Asian nations in conflict. Pakistanis and Afghans are among regular guests.
Schery Pallakil, host of the Shrine of Love
Haroon Bacha, a professional Pakistani singer who fled from Taliban threats and has petitioned for asylum in the United States.
All photos by Ali A. Alnaemi